London (CNN)Few would envy Britain’s embattled National Health Service (NHS) workers over the past year. One of the world’s worst Covid-19 tolls has meant grueling shifts, danger, and workplaces full of grief and trauma. But Charles Oti would swap places with them in a heartbeat. A microbiologist by training, Nigerian by birth, Oti has spent four years working for the NHS honing a specialism in infection control.Oti’s skills are in short supply and among the UK government’s highest priorities for recruitment. But instead of taking a position on the front line of the pandemic response, he has been prevented from working and threatened with deportation.
“I believe I have the skills to make a difference,” says Oti. “This has been so frustrating because I am being wasted.”The case represents a personal ordeal and a wider issue. At a time when Britain is heavily reliant on immigrants to staff its essential services, particularly in the NHS, many of these same workers are fighting for their right to remain in the country.
Living in legal limbo
Oti, 46, received a five-year residence permit when he arrived in the UK in 2013 with his partner, a European citizen.After a spell in the private sector, he took a job with the NHS in London in 2015 as a medical devices coordinator. His regular duties included contamination control and ensuring the safety of equipment such as X-ray machines and respirators.Better money was available in private enterprise but Oti says that public service suited him. He felt the job made more of a difference to the lives of patients and enjoyed the camaraderie within the NHS’s multinational workforce which was “like a family.” There, he says he formed close friendships that helped him adapt to a new country.
But Oti’s residence permit was revoked without his knowledge when his relationship ended, and after returning from a trip to Nigeria in 2017, he was detained at the border and ordered to leave Britain. Since then he has existed in a legal limbo. Several applications to remain have been denied. Oti was allowed to continue working until 2019, when the Home Office informed the NHS that his status was insecure and he was suspended without pay. “They tell you to stop working and it puts a person in a very difficult position,” says Oti. “You can’t afford to make a fresh application or to appeal if it fails. One can go destitute because of this, a lot of migrants do.”Oti has avoided this fate with help from his friends and new partner — a British citizen and NHS worker — who have supported him while he has been unable to work.
Tip of an iceberg
Oti’s case is far from unique, statistics show. An estimated 170,000 of the NHS workforce of 1.28 million are foreign nationals, many of whom have an insecure status. The Doctor’s Association UK (DAUK) group is campaigning for Indefinite Leave to Remain for all NHS workers and their families, writing an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that notes his own recent reliance on the service. “Charles Oti’s case represents precisely the reason DAUK have campaigned for NHS workers and dependents to be granted immediate Indefinite Leave to Remain,” Vice-Chair Dr. Dolin Bhagawati told CNN. “It beggars belief that the Home Office is not playing its part in the national effort to combat a pandemic that still affects the country.”Migrant rights campaigners believe the Home Office’s “Hostile Environment” policies, launched in 2012, are to blame. Those policies, aimed at deterring illegal immigration, introduced more stringent and frequent checks on immigration status that increased the difficulty of accessing services and left migrants more vulnerable. In the most notorious case of the “Windrush” generation, legal arrivals from the Commonwealth were cut off from housing, healthcare and banking services, and in some cases deported. The government has since apologized, commissioned an independent review, and established a compensation mechanism.
“The Home Office has a long history of treating migrants with disdain and cruelty,” says Minnie Rahman of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). “The Windrush Lessons Learned review showed how deeply the Home Office needs fundamental and meaningful reform, but the Government has so far failed to act.”The government has introduced free visa extensions for around 3,000 health and care workers, which unions have criticized as it excludes thousands more. Oti’s solicitors are now pursuing a judicial review of the case, which they say is his last hope. A crowdfunding appeal for his legal fees has raised around £2,700 ($3,700).For Oti, the pandemic has highlighted the need for people to work across boundaries as our fates are invariably connected. “When you walk into a hospital, the consultant who sees you might be a migrant, and the nurse supporting the consultant could be a migrant,” he says. “When something goes wrong (like the pandemic) it can affect everybody.”